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By Graham Earnshaw, Reuters

PYONGYANG, Dec 4, Reuter – North Korea, arguably the world’s most secretive country, is considering opening its doors to western tourism and might even offer visas at the border from next year, a North Korean tourism official said.

The communist government in Pyongyang remains deeply suspicious of foreigners and seems intent on stopping outside influences seeping into its hermetically-sealed society.

But with its large foreign debt, believed to be around 1.5 billion dollars, and depressed prices for its main export commodities, Pyongyang needs every dollar it can get.

A tourist official told western journalists visiting the country last week that about 20,000 tourists visited North Korea last year, all but a few hundred of them from Soviet bloc countries.

A foreign tourism expert said North Korea had begun allowing in tours from the West for the first time only this year.

“North Korea is now opening up to the world and wants to acept more tourists,” the North Korean official said.

“The main problem at the moment is that people don’t seem to know that it is possible to come here so we must make greater efforts at advertising overseas,” he added.

Another problem, foreigners here say, is that the state security authorities could be expected to object to a large influx of foreign tourists.

All visitors are carefully watched and are often followed by plain-clothes agents if they break away from their tour group and go for so much as a walk on the streets.

Even so, the tourism official was optimistic. He said that “from next year, we intend to make it possible for people to get visas issued at the border or at the airport on arrival.”

Foreigners here were sceptical that the idea would be put into effect.

New hotels have been built in some potential tourist destinations but at present they are all virtually empty.

The huge twin-tower, 45-storey Koryo Hotel in central Pyongyang, which opened in August, last week appeared to have no more than 20 rooms of its rooms occupied.

The foreign expert said North Korean authorities were now eager to take as many tour groups as possible but he added that they were woefully unprepared for large-scale tourism.

“There is some curiosity value in North Korea but generally speaking there is not going to be a big market for tours,” he said.

“The real potential is in the United States and Japan but the North Koreans at the moment still refuse to give tourist visas to Americans and Japanese on ideological grounds,” he added. REUTER

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